Stuttgart - Welcome back, then, Huub Stevens. After just four days back in the VfB Stuttgart hot seat, the Dutch tactician has already earned a quarter of the side’s total points this season following a 4-1 victory away to SC Freiburg in the Matchday 13 opener.
And although the hosts played a large part in their own downfall - Freiburg coach Christian Streich said his team “had virtually scored four own goals” - Stevens’ stamp on Stuttgart was clearly visible.
For instance, players such as Timo Werner, Carlos Gruezo and Sercan Sararer had all only played bit-part roles this term under Stevens’ predecessor Armin Veh, but were recalled to the starting line-up in Friday’s Baden Württemberg derby. The defence, the league’s leakiest with 26 goals conceded going into Matchday 13, was much more robust after a few days of training under Stevens, who is renowned for favouring a strong back line.
That is not to say that Stuttgart were suddenly a completely different side in Freiburg; in fact, before the break many familiar shortcomings - in particular a lack of fight and organisation - were evident. “We didn't play well in the first half and we were lucky to go 1-0 up because we could easily have been behind,” admitted striker Martin Harnik. Team-mate Sararer summised that, “we had trouble staying compact and gave them too much space in the first half.”
With the match hanging in the balance at 1-1 at the interval, it was the kind of game Stuttgart would easily have gone on to lose earlier this season. Not so under Stevens. Midfielder Moritz Leitner attributed some of the improvement to the coach’s man-management skills: “He’s talked with us a lot over the last few days. He prepared us well and we’re happy we were able to implement his plan.”
Meanwhile, Harnik revealed that Stevens had “raised his voice” in the dressing room at half time, and it had the desired effect. The visitors were far more committed and energetic in the second 45 minutes, scoring three more goals without reply to secure just their second away win of the season. And while the Swabians remain in a perilous position at the wrong end of the standings, the clubs in mid-table are now just a couple more decent results away.
“In the second half we showed what we’re capable of,” said Stevens, who turned 61 on Saturday. “We put Freiburg’s centre-backs under pressure, forced them into making mistakes and profited from that. We created our third and fourth goals very well and even had good chances after that. We beat a direct rival [at the bottom of the table], so we’re happy with that. This win will give us confidence.”
That will be a much-needed commodity next week when UEFA Champions League participants FC Schalke 04 visit the Mercedes-Benz Arena, to be followed by games against 1. FSV Mainz 05, Hamburger SV and SC Paderborn prior to the winter break. And having rescued Stuttgart from potential relegation last season - they were joint 16th with ten games remaining when Stevens took charge - the signs are already there he can haul them clear again this time.